The Canadian government has announced that it will be introducing new legislation from 2026 requiring companies to add special labels on food products high in sugar, sodium and fat, the Globe and Mail reported.

Following six years of negotiations, Health Canada has officially finalised its plan to put warning labels on sugary, salty and fatty foods, while granting a last-minute exemption for ground meat, according to the 30 June report.

The new rules will require packaged foods containing more than 15% of the daily recommended intake of sugar, salt or saturated fats to display a label flagging this for consumers, the report said. Health organisations said the move was an important step in fighting obesity and diet-related illness.

“Research shows that a simple, clear symbol on the front of food packages will help consumers choose foods lower in saturated fat, sugar and sodium,” Health Minister Jean-Yves Duclos said on 30 June.

The programme would not be fully implemented until 2026, he said, as a long transition period would be needed to give food companies time to comply.

Unveiled in 2016, the government’s plan is part of a range of programmes (including a new Canada’s Food Guide) to help Canadians move toward healthier diets.

The new black-and-white warning labels (which will be in addition to the nutrition facts table) feature a magnifying glass and “high in” ingredient information in simple, bolded text.

Although the move was welcomed by Food, Health & Consumer Products of Canada (FHCP), which represents many large food companies, the organisation also expressed its concerns. In a statement, FHCP senior vice-president of public policy Michi Furuya Chang called the 2024 deadline “unrealistic”.

Chang estimated the direct and indirect cost of new labels at $US8bn – far higher than Health Canada’s estimate of about US$800M.

She said the programme would create further burdens on the industry “at a time when food and beverage manufacturers are already facing unprecedented challenges tied to inflation, labour shortages and COVID-related supply chain disruptions”.

Meanwhile, health organisations praised the move.

Diabetes Canada spokesperson Ann Besner was quoted as saying that the labels “help make the healthy choice the easy choice.”

And Manuel Arango, director of health policy at the Heart and Stroke Foundation, called the moment “historic”.

About a quarter of Canadian adults are obese, and diet-related illness is a leading cause of death, according to Health Canada, which said diet-related disease costs the economy US$28bn/year.

Existing health messages about food, such as the “nutrition facts” table on product labels, had been criticised as poorly designed and confusing, the Globe and Mail wrote.